WHEN Edinburgh Rugby last made a bid for European glory back in 2011-12, that campaign was kick started with a win in Reading and Alan Solomons’ side faces London Irish again next week as they attempt to maintain their 100 per cent winning record in the Challenge Cup, writes Iain Morrison.
Ahead of this weekend’s results the Exiles’ club were firmly rooted to the bottom of the Aviva Premiership without a win to their name and so far they have been using Europe to see what some of the young guns are made of. And, having seen what the kids can do, Edinburgh will hope that London Irish pick a team of grey-beards.
Irish boast one of the brightest young prospects in England, a 6ft 2in teenage centre who tips the scales at 105kgs; Johnny Williams seems assured of a bright future provided he can steer clear of the A&E department. Just turned 19, he does not yet appear under the “First Team” section on the club’s website.
On his senior debut against Agen in the Challenge Cup, Williams ran in one try and walked away with the man of the match award. In his second senior appearance, against Grenoble, he scored a try as Irish lost to a late score. In his third professional start for Irish the teenager grabbed a brace against Wasps, again in a losing cause, so his current record reads: played three, scored four. Oh, and he qualifies for Scotland through a granny.
Which is not to say that he wants to take that route. His dad is Welsh, which you might have guessed from the surname, and he turned out for Wales at U16 level. England picked him up at U18 and he has recently been included in the red rose U20 squad.
The chances of him opting for Scotland seem a little remote, although, thanks to the way RFU funding of Aviva clubs works, even if he secretly wanted to finish up in blue it wouldn’t pay for Williams to admit as much right now. Moreover, playing for the U20s team doesn’t handcuff him to England because the Saxons remain their designated second side.
Someone is sure to tap the centre on the shoulder and ask the question but for once Murrayfield won’t be able to offer Williams an easy route to the international shirt and a cupboard full of caps once he gets there as, you suspect, may have been the case with Steven Shingler, because for the first time in a generation Scotland have some genuine quality in the centres.
If the World Cup highlighted the shortage of available talent, it can be explained by injuries to Alex Dunbar and Duncan Taylor, the oldest of the bunch at 26. The former is back playing for Glasgow while the latter is a key cog in Europe’s form team right now. Taylor scored for Saracens against Ulster in the European Cup and he is keeping Argentine international Marcelo Bosche bench-bound so he must be doing something right. Both Dunbar and Taylor are adaptable, comfortable in both centre positions.
Elsewhere, Matt Scott appears a little too muscular, certainly compared to the slimmer and quicker model that made such an impact when he first broke through three years ago. The Edinburgh man is concentrating on the No 12 shirt but that position doesn’t have to host a basher – just look at what Matt Giteau achieved while sporting a 12 on his back.
In contrast Mark Bennett is an out-and-out outside centre. He remains a better attacker than a defender but occasional dodgy decision making will only improve with experience and, at just 22, he is the baby of the bunch. It’s not often that Scots is mentioned in World Rugby’s dispatches so Bennett’s short-listing for the breakthrough player of the year award suggests great things to come.
Finally, Peter Horne filled in brilliantly in that semi-final against Australia and remains a canny operator even if he looks better equipped physically to play pro-team than Test rugby. What he has in abundance is a keen rugby intelligence – perhaps he should be challenging Finn Russell for the No 10 shirt?